Recently, I was asked for advice about how to respond to the parents of a child diagnosed with cancer or another life-threatening illness. Let me say from the outset that I am a dubious source whose council typically causes some manner of regret. However, since I have stood on the receiving end of some pretty stupid comments over the past year, I do have a fair amount of expertise in this particular area.
First, THERE ARE NO MAGIC WORDS, so don't try to find them. When one is at the start of a long, twisted road that includes the potential mortality of their child, words simply cannot soothe. They can, however, aggravate. So I thought it might be helpful to look at some things that struck us the wrong way when we were facing our crisis.
1. Do not equate anything you've gone through (or had a third cousin go through) with their situation.
This is an immediate conversation ender. We once had someone compare a month-long sinus infection to Kylie's cancer.
2. One of the most frequent things we heard was, "What can I do?"
No matter how sincere the offer, this can add stress to an already stressful situation. The parent of a recently diagnosed child has no idea what day it is or if they remembered to change their underwear for the past two weeks, so they will most likely have trouble assigning tasks to the three dozen people who have asked. Vague offers of help only muddle already murky waters.
"When one is at the start of a long, twisted road that includes the potential mortality of their child, words simply cannot soothe."
3. By far the worst statement I got was, "I know how you feel."
Uh, no you don't. Get back to me when you watch the rise and fall of your child's chest wondering if it will stop during the night. And even if you have been there, your feelings and mine are totally different things.
4. Watch your quantity of words.
Parents in this situation have a maximum amount they can absorb before they shut down. Docs usually fill that bucket daily.
5. Persistence can be irritating.
There were weeks that passed when we just couldn't answer texts and emails. It didn't mean anything other than we were focused on greater issues. A second or third text reminding us of the original only made us feel bad for our inability to balance everything.
6. Don't expect to assume a role that you didn't have before diagnosis.
If we haven't spoken in years, I likely have someone else to bare my soul to. It is fine to offer especially if you have dealt with similar issues, but don't expect it.
7. Don't badger for information.
We would have loved to have known specifics, time frames, and end dates. Unfortunately in such health situations, these often don't exist and constant demands for information only serve to remind a parent of their helplessness.
8. If you made an offer that wasn't accepted, please understand it may be wanted or needed and simply came at the wrong time.
Don't be offended or press for an answer. If the parent needs it, they will most likely return to it eventually.
9. "No" is a perfectly valid answer that people must be prepared to accept without justification or hurt feelings. T
he parents do not need added drama in their life and shouldn't be forced to manage the emotions of others.
10. With all of the fears and doubts of such a diagnosis swirling in the parent's mind, a mention of God's Will can be a very slippery slope.
While we are believers, religious platitudes were not extremely helpful and I can only imagine how such words would be perceived by someone who isn't a believer.
This list is not exhaustive and I can only speak for my family. I think you will find it interesting that while we experienced all of the above, not a single cancer family ever did any of them -- Never. Also know that we truly appreciated the love and support of our community. Some of this may sound crass and ungrateful, but let me assure you that comments like those mentioned were the minority and we looked past them as best we could at the time.
Next week, I would like to offer some suggestions about What to Say When There is Nothing to Say.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.